For the 27th and final time this year, the Pontiac Silverdome plays host to one of the league's annual Thanksgiving Day games. But the NFL's presence on the holiday extends beyond the modern-day regular hosts in Dallas and Detroit, beyond even their Turkey Day feasts at the Cotton Bowl and Briggs/Tiger Stadium.
Thanksgiving and professional football have been as intertwined as turkey breast and stuffing since the NFL's inaugural season of 1920. That year, legendary Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs took on the Akron Pros in the league's first-ever Thanksgiving game, battling to a scoreless tie. For fans, it's annually a special day, when the joys of family mesh with the fun of football. Of course, that's just a little different for the players, coaches and others associated with the game itself. It's a work day - but it's not just another day at the office.
"Thanksgiving is a traditional day," said Fox broadcaster John Madden, who's been calling Thanksgiving games for over two decades. "Most traditions are being with family, but for 21 years, we've been (Madden and Pat Summerall) together every Thanksgiving. So our tradition is being together, on television, at a football game."
It's even longer for Summerall, who joins Madden at the Silverdome this year. "I haven't been home for Thanksgiving since 1953, because each year I've been at a game, either as a player or an announcer." It's a day that's seen the birth of legends on a pro stage, the emergence of unlikely heroes and its share of the weird and wacky. Here's one man's opinion of eight games that best encapsulate the Thanksgiving football experience.
1925: THE GHOST SIGHTING
Chicago Bears 0, Chicago Cardinals 0
In the early years of the NFL, crowds of more than a few thousand were almost incomprehensible. The sport was healthy and had the capability of drawing the tens of thousands it does today, but that was at the college level, and sometimes such throngs filtered their way down to high schools. That changed the moment Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost, sprinted off the University of Illinois campus and into a Chicago Bears uniform. Ten days after his final game with the Fighting Illini, Grange, perhaps the most significant marquee name in the burgeoning sports world of the Roaring Twenties, suited up when the Bears faced the Chicago Cardinals.
Over 36,000 fans jammed Wrigley Field on the holiday to see Grange make his professional debut - a far cry beyond the intimate gathering of just over 7,000 that witnessed the Bears' 21-0 win over the Green Bay Packers four days earlier. The game itself was unremarkable; the Bears and Cardinals grappled to a scoreless tie. But the festive atmosphere on the north side of Chicago provided a glimpse at just what the future entailed for the NFL.
"There had never been such evidence of public interest since our professional league began," Bears owner George Halas would later tell the Chicago Sun-Times. "I knew then and there that pro football was destined to be a big-time sport."
The Bears would promptly leave on a barnstorming tour that saw them play 19 games, including eight in one particularly brutal 12-day stretch. Grange and the Bears would showcase their skills from coast to coast, including in a game at Yankee Stadium. For the first time, professional football emerged as a big-time sport; until then, it was regarded as déclassé by some in the college football establishment, including Grange's coach, Bob Zuppke. "I told (Zuppke), 'You get paid for coaching football," Grange recalled to the Chicago Tribune. "Why shouldn't I get paid for playing it?' "
1952: HOMELESS, WINLESS, BUT VICTORIOUS
Dallas Texans 27, Chicago Bears 23
Long before the Cowboys were even a glimmer in the NFL's eye, the league made a foray into Texas by relocating the foundering New York Yanks to Dallas for the 1952 season, creating the Texans. And while NFL football would eventually become the sun around which the Dallas sports solar system orbited, in 1952, the city greeted the team with a yawn. Sparse Cotton Bowl crowds only made matters worse for a team that was already struggling on the field.
With financial problems mounting by the day, the league took over the franchise seven games - all losses - into the season. Players and coaches packed their bags for Hershey, Pa., where the team would be temporarily housed through the balance of the season. Home games were moved elsewhere, and the Texans' Thanksgiving Day "home" game against the Chicago Bears actually took place in Akron, Ohio, as the second half of a high school-pro doubleheader.
Most of the fans had cleared the bleachers before the 4-5 Bears and still-winless Texans took the field. As a result, head coach Jimmy Phelan had a novel idea for opening the holiday proceedings.
"There were only 3,000 people in the stands," Art Donovan recalled to the Dallas Morning News in 1994. "Jimmy Phelan told us before the game, 'Men, we're going to dispense with the usual pre-game introductions today. Instead, we're going up into the crowd to meet the fans personally. ' " It was expected that the game would be a walkover; the Bears were struggling, but had posted six straight winning seasons. Yet the ragtag, peripatetic Texans pulled off one of the most stunning upsets of any NFL season, as quarterback Frank Tripucka's one-yard run with 34 seconds left allowed Dallas to shock the Bears 27-23.
It would prove to be the only win the franchise ever recorded.
"The celebration went on for two days," Tripucka recalled to the Dallas Morning News in 1994. "I think overconfidence was a big thing. The Bears figured, "The Dallas Texans - they're nothing.' "
There was life after death for the Texans; the franchise was shifted to Baltimore for the 1953 season. Five years later, those tepid Texans - by then known as the Baltimore Colts - captured their first world championship. Among the Colts stars on that title team were Hall of Famers Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti, both of whom survived the cursed campaign of 1952.
A footnote: The checkered history of the Texans obviously hasn't scared off pro football teams that followed in the Lone Star State. When Houston chose "Texans" as the nickname for its expansion team, it became the fourth team since 1952 to choose that nickname. Dallas' AFL entry was known as the Texans before moving to Kansas City. So too was Dallas' Arena Football League team from 1990-93 and San Antonio's Canadian Football League franchise.
1962: SACK PACK SACKS PACK
Detroit Lions 26, Green Bay Packers 14
There's no more appropriate opponent for the Lions to face as they close out their Thanksgiving run in the Silverdome than the Green Bay Packers, for no other team is so intertwined with football on the holiday. The Packers and Lions have battled 15 times on the holiday, including 13 in succession from 1951-63. But none was as memorable as the clash in 1962, when the Lions entered with a healthy 8-2 mark, while the Packers, at the apex of their 1960s success, entered 10-0 and with a 12-game winning streak.
It soon became apparent that the question of the day at Briggs Stadium wasn't going to be whether the streak would end, but by how much. Detroit's pass rushers ripped through the Packers' offensive line as if they'd collectively been denied Thanksgiving dinner and had to take their hunger-related frustrations out on someone - anyone.
Packers quarterback Bart Starr never had a shot at escaping the game with anything more than mere survival. He was sacked by the Lions 11 times for 110 yards - including once for a safety - as Detroit surged to a 26-0 lead before allowing two face-saving touchdowns to close out the game.
"People booed when our offense came on the field," then-Lions defensive coordinator coach Don Shula recalled to the Dallas Morning News in 1993. "They wanted to see our defense play the whole ballgame."
Perhaps no one took anything more out of the game than the 33-year-old assistant. A year later he became the league's youngest head coach, taking over the Baltimore Colts and beginning a run of 33 seasons on the sidelines, in which he would become the game's winningest coach.
However, his legacy still towers in the Lions' record book. The 11-sack total has been matched twice by the Lions since that day, but never surpassed.
1977: FIN-ISHING THE BIG RED
Miami Dolphins 55, St. Louis Cardinals 14
In 1975 and 1977 NFL schedule knocked the Cowboys off of their traditional Thanksgiving perch. Both times, the games moved to St. Louis. In retrospect, the Cardinals would have been better off declining the holiday invitations, as they endured two losses that marred the franchise's most successful era of the past half century.
The 1975 loss, by a 32-14 score to the Buffalo Bills, didn't keep the Cardinals from winning the NFC East; it did, however, knock them one game back of fellow division winners Minnesota and Los Angeles, sending them on the road for a divisional playoff defeat. But the 1977 setback marked the beginning of a descent into an epoch of disappointment that has seen the franchise post just three winning seasons and two playoff appearances since.
In 1977, the Don Coryell-led Cardinals came into Thanksgiving with the league's No. 1 offense, a six-game winning streak and a recent win over the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Cowboys, on their resume. Miami, meanwhile, entered the game 7-3 and was struggling on offense, averaging 15.3 points in their four games, of which they had lost two.
But in the first 15:37 against St. Louis, Miami already had 21 points on three Bob Griese touchdown passes and had sent the Big Red running for cover. The Dolphins set team records for points, touchdowns (eight), first downs (34) and rushing first downs (19), while Griese threw three more touchdown passes for a total of six, setting a franchise record that would be tied, but never surpassed, by Dan Marino.
"This is one of the finest football games played by any team with which I have been associated," Dolphins head coach Don Shula said afterward. Miami finished the year 10-4. St. Louis, which had posted win totals of 10, 11 and 10 from 1974-76, didn't win another game, and dismissed Coryell following a season-ending loss to lowly Tampa Bay. He rebounded, as the ex-San Diego State coach went home to take over the Chargers midway through the 1978 season and promptly led the franchise to four straight playoff appearances.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, didn't. They still haven't posted a double-digit-win season since Coryell's departure, and have been to the playoffs just twice - one fewer than the number of appearances made during the five-season Coryell era.
1979: 'WE'RE TEXAS' TEAM'
Houston Oilers 30, Dallas Cowboys 24
Dallas' dynasty was teetering slightly as Roger Staubach's career lurched into its final month. At that juncture, the Houston Oilers, who never lost the upstart's requisite chip on their shoulder even after establishing themselves as an AFC powerhouse, swooped in, seeking not just their tenth win of the season, but territorial rights over the Lone Star State.
Future Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell did his part, rambling for 195 yards on 33 carries, including touchdown runs of 61 and 27 yards. But it was a costly 12-men-on-the-field penalty assessed to the Cowboys as they made a fourth-quarter punt that helped Houston earn bragging rights.
The Cowboys' gaffe turned into Oilers glory, as Dan Pastorini hit Ken Burrough for a 32-yard touchdown pass on the next play, giving the Oilers a 30-24 lead with 7:30 remaining in the contest. It stood up for the final score, giving the visitors from the Gulf Coast reason to boast.
"They may be 'America's Team,' but we're Texas' team," Oilers head coach Bum Phillips said. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."
And no matter whether the franchise is Texas' team or Tennessee's team, the Oilers/Titans love playing on Thanksgiving. With two more wins in another pair of holiday tries against Dallas - in 1988 and 1997 - and another win over the Lions in 1992, the franchise has been virtually invincible on the fourth Thursday of November.
1989: BOUNTY BOWL
Philadelphia Eagles 27, Dallas Cowboys 0
Was there a bounty placed by the Eagles coaches on Cowboys players or was it all just a myth? The answer depended on which locker room one happened to be standing inside. But the one thing that is certain about this particular installment of the long-running NFC East rivalry is that the 27-0 whitewashing that Philadelphia put on Dallas was not merely the worst defeat ever suffered by Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, but the only shutout it's ever suffered on the holiday.
The loss was a microcosm of the season, as Dallas hung in for a while, trailing by 10 points at halftime, then fell hoplessly behind by giving up two touchdowns in the second half. For the Cowboys, the final quarter was merely a gloomy march towards their fourth consecutive Thanksgiving Day loss and 12th straight defeat at Texas Stadium.
Vitriol came to the surface from time to time on the field as the rivals got into several skirmishes. Finally, in the Cowboys locker room, the crushing frustration of the franchise's worst season since 1960 reached its pinnacle.
"I have absolutely no respect for the way they played the game," Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said. " I would have said something to (Eagles head coach) Buddy (Ryan), but he wouldn't stand on the field long enough. He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room."
"I resent that," Ryan retorted a day later. "I've been on a diet, lost a couple of pounds. I thought I was looking good."
1993: LETT IT SNOW
Miami Dolphins 16, Dallas Cowboys 14
Snowstorms anywhere in the lower 48 states on Thanksgiving Day are somewhat unusual. A snowstorm in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day is downright freakish, which just added to the odd milieu shrouding the Dolphins' trip to Texas Stadium.
Thanks to injuries suffered by Dan Marino and Scott Mitchell, Miami was down to its third quarterback, Steve DeBerg, a man who began the season as a starter - for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But that didn't keep the Dolphins from grabbing an early lead and keeping matters close against a Cowboys team that was on its way to a second consecutive world championship.
But what stands out from the game isn't DeBerg's heroic effort, or the Dolphins' blanket pass coverage that limited Michael Irvin to just 31 yards, or Keith Byars' impromptu flashback to childhood when he flopped to the frigid end zone turf to make snow angels after a 77-yard touchdown run. No, the man of the day, for the wrong reasons, was Leon Lett. Then a third-year player, Lett seemed to be a defensive lineman with a flair for the dramatic flaw, shown when a sure touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII was stripped away by the Bills' Don Beebe at the goal line as he held the ball out. On Thanksgiving 1993, he just couldn't keep himself away from a blocked Pete Stoyanovich field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter with the Dolphins trailing by one.
Deflected by Jimmie Jones, the ball skipped to the Dallas 7-yard-line. As long as no Cowboy touched the ball, the Cowboys would have assumed possession, a mere kneel-down away from victory. But Lett wanted something more. He attempted to pick up the ball, but instead slid through the snow into it. When he touched the ball, it became live once again, and Miami's Jeff Dellenbach picked it up with three seconds left.
"I grabbed Troy (Aikman) and we were hugging, then they said they had the ball," Irvin told the media in the locker room after the game. "It was all so strange."
Given the second - and shorter - chance, Stoyanovich hammered home the game-winning points. Dallas was left with its most stunning loss in recent years; Miami with perhaps its unlikeliest win.
"Eleven guys didn't do what we really needed to do," special teams coach Joe Avezzano told the Dallas Morning News in the wake of the loss. "We had 10 guys getting away from the ball, and we had one who didn't. I'm not sure anyone can explain why."
1998: TURKEY TOSS
Detroit Lions 19, Pittsburgh Steelers 16 (OT)
Relationships often involve he-said, she-said perspectives that are wildly divergent. And while the Lions and Steelers haven't exactly been regular companions since the 1970 merger, their views on the coin flip at the start of overtime at the Silverdome in 1998 weren't unlike those of a couple who can't quite find a middle ground.
After the Lions had rallied from a 13-3 third-quarter deficit to force overtime, the captains from Detroit and Pittsburgh met at midfield to begin the process of deciding matters in sudden death. As referee Phil Luckett tossed the coin in the air, controversy ensued.
The coin came up tails. It appeared at first to a nation of fans watching on CBS that Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis had called it accurately. But closer examination revealed that there may have been a second Steeler quietly saying "heads."
Both teams vociferously defended their viewpoints - although only the Lions ended up winning the coin toss, which they converted into a game-winning field goal from Jason Hanson just 2:52 into overtime. But in football, unlike in the legal system, the routes to an appeal are few; Luckett served as judge, jury and executioner. What followed after the game was mere hot air on both sides, with each intractably convinced of the validity of their particular argument.
"I did not say "heads-tails,' " Bettis said. "When (Luckett) went to flip the coin, it almost hit him, so he jumped away from it. I have to believe that caused him to forget what I said, but I said tails as clear as day." "To me, it sounded like one guy called heads and one guy called tails," Lions cornerback Robert Bailey countered. "That way, no matter what happens, you can argue. It's an old trick."
Both teams did share one perspective during the weeks that followed - defeat. Both teams limped to the finish by combining for an 0-8 record in the last month of the 1998 campaign.
Lost in the commotion was a significant milestone for Lions running back Barry Sanders, who, unbeknownst to all, was about to begin the final month of his NFL career. Sanders rushed for a relatively pedestrian 33 yards, but it was enough to put him over the 15,000-yard mark for his career, allowing him to join only the late Walter Payton among those reaching the milestone. Emmitt Smith would ascend to the club two years later.